At all three screenings I attended of Leos Carax’s incandescent rock opera, Annette (2021), at my local theatre, the already sparse audience trickled from the room. Those who had survived Adam Driver’s sweat-soaked monologue as soon-to-be-disgraced comedian Henry McHenry disappeared when Annette, the child of Henry and opera darling Ann Defrasnoux (Marion Cotillard), was born. 

Emerging from a cacophony of human breath (“Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in,” the nurses sing), Annette is a marionette (more precisely, a series of marionettes) crafted by French puppeteers Estelle Charlier and Romuald Collinet, who proceeds to be fed, cradled, adored, and exploited as if she were comprised of skin and bone. It is this slippage of personhood that emanated a striking perversity for the audience while feeding critics’ descriptions of Annette as “bonkers”1 and “The Weirdest Movie of the Year.”2

Gazing at Henry (Adam Driver), Ann (Marion Cotillard) holds a newborn Annette, whose heart emanates a mottled glow.

Implicitly, puppetry is accused of reeking of twee artificiality. Puppets are for coaxing children into learning the alphabet and for admonishing cookie indulgence, while a puppet addressing an adult is a condescending farce. The tenets of serious art—visceral subjectivity, crisp naturalism—are sacrificed by wooden bodies, rigid and dependent. According to this cultural mythos, puppets are doubles of living things, always yearning to be real boys. They are feared as ‘uncanny’ replicas of human forms, rarely respected as what philosopher Jane Bennett calls “vibrant matter” in their own right.3 

If on-screen puppetry is not surface-level artifice or children’s folly, what are its political possibilities in tandem with the cinema? On-screen puppets, I contend, collapse divisions between human and non-human bodies. They offer a tender synthesis of matter and spirit by immersing us in the dynamism of Bennett’s “thing power,” while simultaneously amplifying the communal vibrancy of filmmaking.4 Moreover, as in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Podwójne życie Weroniki (The Double Life of Véronique, 1991), puppetry, as medium and motif, gestures to the strings that bind us in an expansive web of social relations and ethical responsibility. 

Puppets, Innocence, and Truth-Telling 

Puppets are a well-worn metaphor for artifice itself, symbolising illusion, lack, and the transience of childhood imagination in contrast with the presumed solidity of bourgeois adult society. As philosopher and critic Tzachi Zamir writes, puppets represent an “unthinkable return to playing with dolls,” which destabilises popular, dualistic notions of human subjectivity as a separation from the world of objects, as theorised by scholars such as Margaret Mead and Karl Marx.5 In Pinocchio’s Progeny: Puppets, Marionettes, Automatons, and Robots in Modernist Avant-Garde Drama, Harold B. Segel discusses the growing sidelining of the puppet due to the development of bourgeois cultural forms, like dramatic theatre, and the idea that the puppet’s “spontaneity, intuitiveness, and prerationality” is incompatible with social convention, specifically the rhythms of industrialised capitalism.6 For Segel, the impulse to suppress the puppet’s anarchism is emblematised by the story of Pinocchio himself, whose transformation into a “real boy” recalls “the passage of youth into adulthood and the readiness to accept the responsibility of social integration.”7 

Meanwhile, modernist artists reclaimed the puppet due to its perceived proximity both to popular culture and to the world of the child, deemed to be an imaginative space of resistance. In the wake of Spanish and Italian fascism, they returned to puppetry as an indigenous popular tradition. Federico García Lorca was a major proponent, lauding the puppet as a being “born of the earth,” capable of tackling “vulgarities, falsehoods, and troubled feelings” with its “delicious and crude language.”8 Puppets, Lorca claimed, could reach beyond social and political convention, into the “enchanting freedom” of satire and absurdity. Challenging the growing demands for dramatic realism, puppetry became a space for raucous experimentation, eroticism, and joy. 

On the one hand, Annette’s trajectory seems to affirm the former idea, of puppet-hood as an inhibiting artifice and unstable, temporary state of being. When Ann is killed by Henry, Annette is inhabited by her spirit in the form of her unearthly soprano, which promises to haunt him indefinitely. As Henry drags Annette into childhood stardom, her dangling form suggests her subjection to patriarchy and stifling fame. It is only when Annette shares the truth about her father, and undergoes a separation from him by confronting him in his cell, that she sheds her puppet body. 

Annette (Devyn McDowell) releases her puppet form to confront her father in his cell. Puppet-hood, this implies, is a state that can be surpassed, subordinated to an adult equilibrium. Yet, at the same time, Annette’s ability to haunt Henry as a conduit for her mother’s spirit, alongside her somewhat omniscient perspective (she is the only character privy to her father’s misdeeds), recalls Lorca’s celebration of the puppet as a knowledge-bearer and truth-teller.

Annette’s Radical Thingness 

Annette’s materiality itself rattles with a resistant life force. Her joints undulate with a stuttering ambiguity, as if she is being tugged by disparate energies. The slowness of her motion, in comparison to the rush of human bodies around her, has a startling, incantatory effect. As Annette is forced by Henry to undertake a tireless world tour, we see a montage of her being rushed through foreign cities and bombarded by crowds. Her body is still and stoic amongst the chaos, balanced on suitcases or in Henry’s arms. A barrage of fast-paced travel imagery is interrupted by a shot of Annette floating slowly above an anonymous cityscape, embracing her plush gorilla. Annette’s positioning repeatedly draws attention to the puppet’s ‘inhuman’ qualities, as she is splayed, rigid, across an armrest, or levitates, outstretched to reveal her slotted joints. 

Asleep on an airplane, Annette lies across the legs of Henry and the Accompanist (Simon Helberg), tranquil amidst the frenetic motion.

Held by her plush gorilla, a serene Annette floats above a brightly lit cityscape.

Far from suggesting lifelessness, the limp, stiff qualities of Annette’s puppet form here demonstrate her resistance to the rhythms of her exploitation and the persistence of her vivid inner life. The puppet’s ‘limitations’ represent a refusal to keep up with the frenetic nature of capitalist time. “Its life is in its center, and its four limbs and head, spread out like rays around it, are merely its elements of expression. It is a talking star, untouchable,” writes poet and dramatist Paul Claudel of the marionette.9 Annette’s features as a marionette—her centre of gravity, her wooden heft, her lack of musculature—undermine her commodification and emanate a peculiar power. 

Philosopher Jane Bennett has developed a theory of materialism which, influenced by Henry David Thoreau, Baruch Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, aims to elucidate “thing-power” as a compelling force and a “kind of agency” which animates non-human bodies.10 She confronts binaries like subject/object and mind/body, illustrating a fuller ecology of shifting, lively matter, seeking “to promote acknowledgment, respect, and sometimes fear of the materiality of the thing and to articulate ways in which human being and thinghood overlap”11. Puppets are an ideal candidate for exploring this overlap, both for their expressiveness and the way in which they operate in conjunction with human bodies, each extending the other. 

“I wanted her to be on the set,” says Carax, “I wanted to be able to touch her, the actors could touch her and take her in their arms and feel for her.”12 Annette beholds a kind of ‘transitional’ being: she is a blatant signifier of the bodies suspending her in space, seen and unseen. Carax exaggerates Annette’s materiality and, in rendering her seams, joints, and grain so visible, gestures offstage, towards the labour of the puppeteers. Fittingly, the film’s credits coincide with a literal procession of the extended cast and crew, chanting and carrying lanterns. Puppeteers Charlier and Collinet are at the helm with multiple Annettes. 

Annette’s cast and crew – including the puppets and puppeteers – march through the forest with lanterns as the credits roll.

“Art is like good bread! Art is like green trees! Art is like white clouds in blue sky!” radical Vermont puppet company, Bread and Puppet, write in their ‘Why Cheap Art Manifesto,’ fervently reducing art to earth-matter.13 The group, known for marching with their puppets in protest of the Vietnam War, liken puppetry to bread baking: nourishing, tactile, distributable. Annette’s concluding parade reaches into puppetry’s history as a communal art form, emphasising art-making as a non-hierarchical co-animation. 

The Double Life of Véronique and the Strings of Interdependency

In The Double Life of Véronique, Kieślowski uses puppets to explore the exhilaration and confusion of being doubled. Described by Kieślowski as a movie about “the luminous, the numinous and the ominous,” The Double Life of Véronique constructs a cosmos of uneasy cohesions.14 Parisian Véronique and Polish Weronika (both played by Irène Jacob) are passionate singers with perilous heart conditions. When Weronika dies onstage in operatic euphoria, Véronique, a school music teacher, is punctured by an uncertain, expansive grief which, by leading her to cease singing, will ultimately shepherd her to safety. 

Véronique’s recognition of her doubled life arrives to her as a result of the puppet show she watches in her primary school hall, about a young ballet dancer whose dreams are busted by a broken leg. She becomes entombed in a gauzy cocoon and then emerges, a butterfly in rapture. Amidst a tide of children’s fidgety joy, Véronique glows with desire, glimpsing the body of the marionettist, Alexandre Fabbri (Philippe Volter). The scene is filmed with a coloured filter, characteristic of Kieślowski’s work, lending it an ethereal green haze. This transcendent vision, however, is punctured by frequent shots of Véronique, the shuffling audience, and Alexandre’s careful motion. 

The hands of puppeteer Alexandre Fabbri (Philippe Volter) begin to animate a dancing marionette.

As Véronique watches the performance with the schoolchildren, deep focus immerses her in the crowd as she shares the children’s awe, their wide-eyed faces awash in green.

Alexandre will become Véronique’s lover and will illuminate her layered existence with a series of enigmatic clues. For now, Véronique watches him tenderly pack her dreamscape into the boot of his shabby company van, the pathetic knotted into the sublime. For Kieślowski, as for Carax, puppets synthesise the material and the spiritual. They are defined by their celestial suspension, yet their mechanics—strings, ropes, roving hands—are laid unabashedly before us.

Uncanny Guardians

The Double Life of Véronique references a popular association of puppets with ideas of destiny. Relying on humans to move and speak, puppets have been viewed as expressions of passivity and futility in a deterministic universe. As Segel writes, this idea was popularised by some modernist artists, such as Maurice Maeterlinck, for whom puppets reflected humans’ metaphysical position as a “plaything in the hands of fate, death, his fear of the unknown.”15 

In a 2006 essay, Slavoj Žižek suggests that The Double Life of Véronique appeals to the ways in which untaken life paths “continue to haunt our reality,” giving life a “status of extreme fragility and contingency,” and Kieślowski’s puppet motif in particular contributes to this.16 After Véronique and Alexandre begin their relationship, she notices that he has made two puppets uncannily resembling her. Disturbed, she questions the doubling, to which he responds that the puppets are breakable; they are touched so frequently that they need stand-ins. In this scene, the puppets are an unsettling parallel for Véronique’s feeling of powerlessness and disunity. 

By crystallising her awareness of her (lost) twin, however, the puppets actually lead to Véronique’s escape from her morbid ‘destiny.’ Drawing upon Otto Rank in his famous essay on the uncanny, Freud broaches the possibility of the double as not just a shadowy creature but a possible ‘guardian angel’: “an insurance against destruction of the ego, an ‘energetic denial of the power of death.’”17 The film ends with Véronique’s commitment to continue living, abandoning her vocation to care for her craftsman father. This is illustrated by a close-up shot of her gently pressing her palm against a pine tree outside his workshop. We cut back to a close-up of Véronique’s father’s face, which begins to glow knowingly, as if he has sensed Véronique’s presence through the wood itself. Kieślowski’s wood motif recalls the materiality of Alexandre’s puppets and their function in the narrative to evoke the necessity, and vitality, of interconnection and kinship. 

Véronique presses her palm into a pine tree outside of her father’s workshop.

The Double Life of Véronique, then, further demonstrates how the puppet can be read in terms of valuable interdependency. Indeed, puppetry generates political possibilities because, as a motif, it undermines individualism, emphasising the degree to which bodies are buffeted and reshaped by their environments. Judith Butler writes that “To be ec-static means, literally, to be outside oneself, and this can have several meanings: to be transported beyond oneself by a passion, but also to be beside oneself with rage or grief.”18 In the wake of the AIDS crisis, Butler critiques an overemphasis on ‘autonomy’ for failing to honour our overlapping lives. Instead, she wants to reiterate that we are nested in an unavoidably social world, that our ‘selves’ are actually nodes of interaction. It is after the puppet show that Véronique returns home to tell her father that she no longer feels alone; that she is in love but does not know yet with whom. Her love sprawls, expansive and rooted—like a tree, or a marionette with its web of strings. 


On the one hand, Annette and The Double Life of Véronique both explore the fearsomeness of puppets. Annette is a vehicle for her mother’s rage, a ‘haunted doll’ and a plaything for a spectacle-driven entertainment industry, shifted between domineering hands. Véronique is also haunted by Alexandre’s puppets, with their contingency, breakability, and dependency reflecting her own. Yet, in both films, puppets remain an exuberant presence whose strangeness allows them to bridge worlds of childhood and adulthood, the familiar and unfamiliar, the bodily and the spiritual. 

Meanwhile, both Carax and Kieślowski emphasise puppets as handmade entities, exaggerating their physicality and the process of their creation. By reinterpreting puppetry, an ancient theatrical tradition, they erode expectations of a naturalistic or ‘seamless’ cinema. Creating parallels between puppetry and filmmaking, these filmmakers ultimately celebrate cinema as a collaborationbetween storytellers, makers, objects, and audiences.


  1. Mark Kermode, “Annette review – Leos Carax’s bonkers but beautiful musical fantasy,” The Guardian, 5 September 2021.
  2. David Sims, “Leos Carax’s ‘Annette’ Is the Weirdest Movie of the Year,” The Atlantic, 18 August 2021.
  3. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (London: Duke University Press, 2010).
  4. Jane Bennett, “The Force of Things: Steps Toward an Ecology of Matter,” Political Theory, Volume 32, Issue 3 (June 2004): p. 353.
  5. Tzachi Zamir, “Puppets,” Critical Inquiry, Volume 36, Issue 3 (2010): p. 396.
  6. Harold B. Segel, Pinocchio’s Progeny: Puppets, Marionettes, Automatons, and Robots in Modernist and Avant-Garde Drama (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 38.
  7. Ibid, p. 42.
  8. Ibid, p. 167.
  9. Ibid, p. 100.
  10. Bennett, “The Force of Things,” p. 354.
  11. Ibid, p. 349.
  12. Leos Carax, “Leos Carax talks ‘Annette’ and making films ‘that reflect what you fear,’” interview by Fiona Williams, SBS (30 August 2021), https://www.sbs.com.au/movies/article/2021/08/30/leos-carax-talks-annette-and-making-films-reflect-what-you-fear-interview.
  13. Bread and Puppet, ‘Why Cheap Art Manifesto,’ 1984, Bread and Puppet Archive, https://breadandpuppet.org/cheap-art/why-cheap-art-manifesto.
  14. Marek Haltof, The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski: Variations on Destiny and Chance (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 120.
  15. Segel, Pinocchio’s Progeny, p. 51.
  16. Slavoj Žižek, “The Double Life of Véronique: The Forced Choice of Freedom,” The Criterion Channel, 2011.
  17. Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny (1919), trans. David McLintock (London: Penguin Books, 2003), p. 142.
  18. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004).

About The Author

Indigo Bailey is a writer and educator who recently graduated with Honours in English Literature at the University of Tasmania. She particularly loves French and musical cinema.

Related Posts